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The Pumpkin Pie Reading Mystery is an engaging Thanksgiving-themed lesson for middle school ELA.

Thanksgiving Lesson for Middle School ELA – Pumpkin Pie Reading Mystery

I’ve got a soft spot for any holiday that involves a big meal and a decadent dessert, so Thanksgiving ranks up there as one of my favorite times of the year! However, when it comes to incorporating this holiday into the ELA classroom, it can initially seem challenging to find a meaningful Thanksgiving lesson for the middle school level. Although there are tons of Thanksgiving activities for elementary students (I have to admit, those “hand turkeys” are pretty cute!), it feels more challenging to find rigorous Thanksgiving ELA activities that are appropriate for our pre-teens and teenagers!

This is why I love reading mysteries so much. These ELA skill-building activities are a great fit in middle school classrooms at any time of year—and can help to infuse a bit of holiday fun into your learning space. Today, I’m sharing my favorite Thanksgiving-themed lesson for middle school ELA students. The Pumpkin Pie Reading Mystery challenges students to comb through a variety of engaging readings, read closely, make inferences, and support their thinking with evidence.

How the Activity Works

Before you dive right into the activity, it’s important to get familiar with the process of running a reading mystery in your middle school ELA classroom. These low-prep activities are highly engaging – perfect for times (like the build-up to holidays!) when you want to move learning forward and have a little fun!

To begin, you’ll want to make sure you print enough resources for your class. I like to keep a stash of file folders handy (I call them my “case files”) for this type of activity. From here, it’s easy to grab what I need (one folder per group) and tuck all the pieces of evidence inside. I find this helps keep students organized, too!

1. Build Anticipation

This engaging middle school Thanksgiving lesson is ideal if you’re looking to simply print and go. However, I love to add a little “extra flavor,” if you know what I mean! For example, I like to visit my local thrift store to repurpose some seasonal household items (I found a string of battery-powered pumpkin-shaped lights a few years ago!). Then, all you need is an attention-grabbing activity! It doesn’t take much to create a lively Thanksgiving lesson for middle school ELA.

I like to begin by putting a poster on the door. Who stole the pumpkin pie? This usually gets students chatting among themselves – especially when I print the poster in color! 

2. Set the Scene

Begin this Thanksgiving ELA activity by sharing the story of Mary Livingstone. This year, she has taken over the role of hosting the family’s large Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. You might like to display the story on a large screen to the entire class and read it out loud. Another option is to have your middle school students split into smaller groups (I find groups of four tend to work well) and carefully read the backstory together. Either way, you’ll want your students to be in small groups for the next stage of the task – solving the mystery!

At the end of the meal, Mary lifts the lid off her cherished cake dome…but the pumpkin pie she spent hours making is gone! She is certain one of the dinner guests ate the pie. Could it be Beau, her daughter’s boyfriend? Henry, the mailman? Rufus, the dog? 

Now, it’s time for your students to take over. Working in their groups, they must determine which of the guests could have eaten the pie!

Set the scene for your Thanksgiving lesson by sharing the backstory of the mystery with your middle school ELA students.

3. Comb through the Evidence

This is where the fun (and learning!) really begins: it is time for your students to solve the mystery! To determine the dinner guest who most likely ate the pie, they will need to comb through the provided evidence. This includes:

  • Social media posts
  • An apology note
  • Text messages
  • An intake form for Rufus the dog’s obedience training classes
  • Emails
  • Invitations

… and much more!

As they work their way through the evidence, students will find clues that will help them solve the mystery. I believe that a Thanksgiving-themed lesson for middle school ELA students doesn’t need to be just fun and games. Activities like the Pumpkin Pie Reading Mystery support the development of many different literacy skills, including critical thinking, close reading, text evidence, and inference skills – all essential aspects of a strong reading foundation.

Closely reading a range of evidence, including text messages, emails, and other engaging sources, will help middle school ELA students solve the mystery!

4. Record the Evidence

While they complete the reading portion of the task, I like to remind students to appoint a recorder for each group. This person can use the provided graphic organizer to keep track of what they learn about each potential suspect, and whether or not they could have eaten Mary’s pumpkin pie!

During this part of the lesson, I like to stress the importance of collecting detailed evidence. This way, middle schoolers are prepared to defend (or refute) their final theories with support from the evidence. In other words, they have to be able to back up their ideas! To create even more of an incentive for students to justify their thinking, I sometimes offer a Thanksgiving-themed sticker or eraser for the members of the group with the most detailed graphic organizer. (Sometimes a little holiday-themed bribery goes a long way!)

A provided graphic organizer helps middle school ELA students stay on track as they solve a Thanksgiving mystery.

5. Group Sharing, Review, and Reflection

After the groups finish their graphic organizers, I like to conclude my Thanksgiving lesson by taking an informal poll. Which dinner guest do my middle school ELA students think could have eaten the pie? Alternatively, a representative from each group could share their theories, supported by specific evidence from the text, of course.

Now that the group has had a chance to name their suspect and defend their thinking, it’s time to review each of the potential suspects and reveal the culprit! Here, I like to model critical thinking skills by showing how each piece of evidence could be used to rule out (or confirm) the suspects.

As an exit task, you may wish to have students complete a brief reflection on their learning. This can help identify areas of strength and growth for next time and can be used to measure progress as you continue to work on essential literacy skills.

I like to model the process of using evidence to confirm (or rule out) a suspect.

There you go! I hope the Pumpkin Pie Mystery inspires you to give your middle school ELA lessons a Thanksgiving twist this week! Click below to grab this ready-to-use lesson!

Did you know that the Pumpkin Pie Reading Mystery is also part of the Presto Plans Reading Mysteries Program? This full-year program contains 40 engaging reading mysteries – one for every week of the school year!

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